Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer
Catapult, 2019; 274 pp
Reviewed by Sarah J. Schlosser


How do you write about an experience nearly no one else will have? That’s the task at hand for the first book and memoir of Lara Prior-Palmer’s Rough Magic, an account of her victory in 2013 in the extreme sport of long-distance horse-racing in Mongolia. Prior-Palmer is only nineteen years old when she haphazardly signs up for the race, secures the sharply discounted entry fee and funding for supplies and logistics; not only does her friends and family feel that she will not even complete the race, but her fellow racers see her as finishing last, if at all. But Prior-Palmer not only proves them wrong, but exceeds her own expectations, for both the outcome of the race and for the humanity that she gains in the course of the race and its unbelievable finish.

Prior-Palmer has been running from things, she explains throughout the narrative, all of her short life. The book opens with her running away from a job as an au pair for a family in Austria who only leaves the house to drive their impressive cars and who only speak English when Prior-Palmer to practice her German with them. She feels the press of responsibility with no growth closing her in and leaves the position to return to her childhood home in London (a city she considers to be repressive as well) to find her next adventure. She finds the Mongolian race on an internet search, and starts making inquiries even though the deadline for registration has passed; she no longer has enough time to obtain inoculations and the proper training. Having worked with horses as a child, Prior-Palmer approaches the race on that experience as well as the hopes of advice from an aunt that works with horses for a living. When the advice doesn’t come, Prior-Palmer plunges in blind, learning the landscape and experience abjectly and honestly by day, in an environment of rough nature that she from time to time assigns narrative, as though each aspect of the environment is a character:

We move wet thereafter, entranced by the flies hopping in the grass. We are all going somewhere. I believed the water when she said this. We are pulled to our ends. When we reach a barricade of mountains, I look around the let the land strike me. I don’t know how mountains make their livings, nor do I understand the wider earth, but it does seem to have gotten here first. And when we’re gone, this is what will be. Living desertion, the land knows what I don’t: no one can etch a story into earth or sky. The wind sprints the clouds away, the stage clears for another day…

May we only ever have one day.

Prior-Palmer not only allows voice to a river that she crosses, she also imagines what the wild ponies that she rides are thinking, silently speaking back when she looks them in the eye. The ponies run with riders at a total distance of 40 kilometers before they are exchanged at a veterinarian stop; the ridden horse has to have an exam that he (and all of the race horses are male) has no injuries and hasn’t been run to too high of a pulse for too long before riders can start the next leg. Prior-Palmer has names for each horse, but also hopes for them to possess a pure wild spirit; a hope of a wild spirit looking to get away like she does. Despite the idea that Prior-Palmer initiated this race for herself as an escape, it’s the one experience in her life that seems to hold her captive at last, in a prison cell the size of a horizon, with only her pony and her endurance to keep her company and set her free. It’s the free and spritely nature of her prose, flinging to and fro with a sense of free verse and near cadence with an instance to no order, that keeps the reader in that enclosure as well.